Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Night Relaxer: Vale Borders

I first encountered Borders in 2001 when my wife and I visited friends who were living in Vancouver. I think I spent about 3-4 hours in the Borders and I probably drooled most of the time. So I was a bit sad to hear this week that all the stores in Australia were closing.

Back then in 2001 I was in total awe.

My God the books!

Living as I did in Cairns at the time, which is not exactly replete with City Lights type bookstores, it was a joy to be in a place where I could think of a book I had been searching for in Australia and voila there it was (so yep, thank you I will buy that copy of The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes). I bought my cup of coffee, read a magazine, then sauntered off around the store, found a collection of William Goldman’s essays from Variety (The Big Picture), sat down in one of the very comfy chairs, and read the whole thing.

I then bought it.

I read another book – and also dozed for a bit (we had arrived the previous day and I was pretty jet-lagged), and then went searching and found a copy of The 42nd Parallel by Jon Dos Passos (bought it), and left thinking this is as close to heaven as I’m going to get.image

I’ve always loved bookstores. When I was a kid and we’d go shopping in Adelaide I would happily stay in a bookstore while my parents went off around the rest of the Westfields. At that stage I wasn’t even that big of a fiction reader, but I would happily look at the books on sport, or biographies or history section. Even the crappiest chain store bookstore was bliss for me.

When I went to Japan as an exchange student this love continued as I found some excellent bookstores in Tokyo that had copious amounts of English books – it was actually that year that I really discovered fiction.

And so when I encountered Borders in Vancouver and another in LA and the Barnes and Noble in San Francisco (and also the magnificent City Lights), I was as happy as a book lover could be (apparently there were other sites in Vancouver, LA and San Fran which also made the trip worthwhile).

When Borders opened in Adelaide, I was rather overjoyed as each year when we went home for Christmas I would stock up on books. Though if I was honest, the Borders in Adelaide didn’t change my buying habits much because I would often end up buying the books from the great Imprints bookstore on Hindley Street or the Mary Martin Bookshop on Rundle Street. If I am also honest, the Borders in Adelaide (and the one in Sydney) never really had that great welcoming vibe that did the bookstore in Vancouver. Neither store ever had the come on in and saunter around, grab a book and have a read, buy it if you like it vibe.

They sold coffee though. Gloria Jeans coffee…

When the Canberra store opened however things did feel better – it was just one floor – a wide open expanse. It had a great kids section where someone would often be reading stories on weekends, and my book crazy 5 year old (at the time) daughter was in raptures. It was her absolute favourite store (this was before she discovered Smiggle).

But as time passed I realised that we would go each week and let my daughter do some colouring-in and browsing of the kids books, but my browsing became less and less, because the content in the shop began to shrink. A shelf here and there was taken away. It wasn’t much, but it was noticeable. It went from being a store where I could come across a book I would likely not find anywhere else to one where I would say – you’re kidding they don’t have a copy of Bleak House? No Crime and Punishment?? No Solzhenitsyn at all???

We would buy a book for my daughters (they had a good supply of the “That’s Not My…” books that my youngest loves). But I stopped buying. A couple years back I wrote a blog post called Ten Books Needed in the Perfect Bookstore. It was a bit of a response to Borders lack of content.

imageBack then I also wrote  a blog titled How Much does that Book Cost? in which I despaired at the lack of logic in the price of books, noting that in Borders a copy of Winton’s Cloudstreet which came out in 1991 cost $29.50, but his latest work Breathe (which had just been published) cost $27.50. And of course a couple shelves away I could get Our Mutual Friend for $18.99, but Oliver Twist for $9.99.  

I wrote how I could go next door to JB Hi Fi and find logic in the price of DVDs and CDs (you never for example expect to pay more for Achtung Baby which came out in 1991 than U2’s latest album – unless it was a special remastered re-issue, and even then it would likely be the same price as the latest release not more). Similarly you don’t pay more for the DVD of the first Harry Potter movie than you do for the most recent.

Logic. Wonderful thing.

But of course that is not the only reason I stopped buying books there – the actual prices themselves were absurd. With the Australian dollar where it is shopping at The Book Depository with its lovely nil shipping charges is just too good to resist.

Booko has become one of my most visited sites as I compare prices across the world and buy with a couple clicks.

The close of Borders will nonetheless be a sad occasion, but when I went in on Wednesday lunchtime after hearing the news that it was closing the place felt pretty soulless. And what’s more the 20% off didn’t make anything more enticing. I grabbed a couple kids books for my youngest daughter. Went looking to see if a copy of Barnaby Rudge was there (one of the few Dickens I don’t own), it wasn’t. And so I left.

It will be sad because the place will leave a big hole in my daughter's life – she truly loved racing down the back to the kids’ area. But for me, the book addict, it won’t cast too much of a pall. I will still go out each weekend to the great second hand bookstores around Canberra,  and also to the fabulous Book Grocer in Kingston which is staffed by people who know books, and which has great books at great prices – $10 for a copy of Roger MacDonald’s 1915, why thank you, yes I will buy that!

There are a number of reasons why Borders failed. Yes the Parallel Import Restrictions play a part – but that doesn’t explain why Borders in the US also went belly-up. It is bizarre to think we could even care that Borders is going. Its demise perhaps makes You’ve Got Mail now officially the most dated movie of the 1990s – remember the book chain owned by Tom Hanks that run Meg Ryan’s little bookstore out of town was modelled on a Border’s type chain – so now, not only is no one meeting anyone through email, neither are massive bookstores chomping away the little guy.

Obviously the internet beat Borders. But I don’t think it did itself any favours. Borders reminds me a bit of Channel 9. Under Packer Nine was always the biggest and the best. Yes it made a profit, but being Number 1, and the biggest and the best seemed more important than being the most profitable. Let Channel 10 play the low revenue, low cost game. Nine was big. And then it was sold to bean counters who slashed and burned as they tried to cut costs and make a profit and well being “Still the One” seemed less important. And so the ratings absolutely tanked across the board.

Borders had to be big, and had to be well stocked, had to offer big service – story readings, coffee, comfy chairs. You had to want to go there because it was BIG. In the last couple years, yeah it’s been big in size, but has felt small in scope.

Floor space is pointless if there feels like more space than books.

But maybe bookstores are dying. I still seem to spend plenty of time in them – the Dymocks in Canberra central is nice and has a “we know books” vibe. So too does the Paperchain bookstore in Manuka (another favourite of mine). If the big bookstores are dead, but the smaller, independent ones (even though I know Dymocks is not) remain, I don’t think that will be too bad a thing. 

Have a relaxing weekend (I know I’ll be relaxing in a bookstore).


durk94 said...

One of the (obvious) side effects of Borders closing is that for many of us - we now have no local bookstore. Our family grew to love visits to our local Borders. However, when it opened, two smaller stores closed, and now we have to travel much further to find any books for sale at all.

I like buying cheap books online as much as the next guy - but the enjoyable weekend sojourn to the bookstore with the family is now largely a thing of the past.

boynxdor said...

I love books too and being gay I think I might loose the will to live if The Bookshop at Darlinghurst ever closed. I estimate I have spent at least $10K in that shop over the years.

As a reader I guess I'm always sad to see any bookstore close but after what the chains did to the independents I guess its just evolution.

At least some of the independents are still with us and can compete catering to niche markets with good selection and great service.

Bugger the Kindle I need real paper that I can dog-ear.

ASL said...

This mirrors many of my thoughts...

Grew up loving books (it's like a relationship), used to love Borders because I could always find a book on my two favourite subjects of history and Antartic exploration), watched as those sections started to decline whilst the isles filled with knick-knacks, and then not really bothered any more.

Thanks for the tips on other good stores in Canberra - it might warrant an expedition on the weekend.

Our latest favourite bookstore is behind Salamanca Place in Hobart. We came home from holidays with a couple of extra kilos!

Victoria Rollison said...

It is interesting to think about the parallels between the fate of the publishing industry and the fate of print media. For people like me, blogs like yours have become far more relevant sources of news than the print or digital formats published by Fairfax, News Ltd and even the ABC. There are thousands of people currently trying to work out how to better monetise digital news media, but they are ignoring the real elephant in the room - the rise of 'indie' writers and bloggers who provide reliable, interesting and accessible content. I'm an indie writer of fiction and I am keeping a close eye on the rise of eBooks in the USA. Australia is following this trend. One of the reasons there are less books available in Borders and the like is because there are less books being published by traditional publishers. I would love to see my book available in all book stores, but the barriers to entry are getting higher by the day. eBooks offer me a way to reach a worldwide audience, without having to convince a tiny group of people to invest in my ideas. Just like the record companies who failed to see the change coming, and let a computer company (Apple) dominate the market for digital music, the publishing industry and news media are being washed away by a wave of digital content. The fascinating thing is that none of them have yet found a way to see this change as an opportunity rather than a threat. Amazon was a retailer of actual books, before it became the largest eBook market in the world. Now Amazon have their own Imprints, so they are a publisher, not just a retailer. A new monopoly now rules.

_vTg_ said...

A very good overview of the situation- thanks.

One other factor in the strange tale of Borders was their faux aversion to Internet orders from overseas. My one online experience with Borders was an Xmas order of kids' books. Nothing unusual there. The order cane in two shipments, one sent from Australia, one sent from the UK. So much for "we can't compete with overseas sellers".

Greg Jericho said...

Oh God ASL - those bloody knick-knaks. I hated them with such a passion. Bugger off and give me back my niche history sections!!!!

Yep durk94 that is the problem. They came along drove out other businesses and now are dead themselves, and we're left with a big empty space in the shopping centre/mall

Greg Jericho said...

Yes Victoria, the ebook is definitely going to grow. I don't have an iPad, but I suspect if I did, I would have more than a few books downloaded.

I love my physical books, but I am getting less and less obsessive about feeling the need to defend the dead-tree version.

c said...

The Beyond Q Second- Hand Book Store at Curtin, ACT is a favourite of mine (and also has a great kid's book section) See

I've also heard good things about Collector Books - at Collector, about a 30min drive from Canberra. I see that they have an event this Sunday, namely the Australian Book Launch of 'Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science' and a talk by its author Lawrence Krauss on the Challenge of Writing Biography.

Um. I might just make my first visit this week-end.

L said...

I can't wait to see what takes over that prime piece of retail floorspace in the Canberra Centre. Maybe that inexplicable football jersey megastore in the bus interchange will move there when its rent honeymoon runs out. Or they could subdivide it and build a little mini Brand Depot.

Also, I used to like the Book Grocer until I worked out that it was a remainder bookshop.

On Japanese bookshops: did you go to the Blue Parrot in Takadanobaba? I loved that place. Still have several books I bought there and shipped home. Bondi Books in Jinbocho was another one.

Pip said...

Grog I've had a lot of luck with Abe Books, and.... they have copies of Barnaby Rudge, second hand and new.
The new one is $6.40/A$5.99 [from Book Depository], and no postage.
It's worth checking the Book Depository directly as well because they are often a little bit cheaper than Abe Books
Good luck.

kzzann said...

I don't think we have ever had a book store in the Illawarra where they served coffee, had seats where you could sit and read or that were well stocked. I envy those who have had that experience. Instead we have mainly A&R bookstores, or at least we did, and they have had a grab your book and get out vibe.
A friend recommended the Book Depository in January when I had difficulty find a particular Jasper Fforde. It was then I discovered I could purchase four of his titles for less than it would cost to get two here and more importantly they had all the books from his Thursday Next series, with the exception of the 5th book, in the UK trade cover. Little did I know at the time it was going to be near impossible to find the 5th book in the trade cover. I know the content should be more important than the cover but I am quite pedantic about the issue of matching collections.
I did go to a Borders in Parramatta once. It was cavenous and souless and seemed to have more empty floorspace than books on shelves. I am hoping that small, intimate, welcoming bookstores jump into the void but its har to imagine how they would compete. My dream bookstore would sell new and used books, have the feeling of a comfy living room with the smell of coffee whafting through the store. I would happily pay a bit extra for books I could buy from a store with atmosphere rather than the sterile, uninviting bookstores I have experienced.

Anonymous said...

I read an article about three years ago that listed the twenty US companies that would file for chapt. 11 in the coming years. Borders was at the top of the list. The problem was that in the US Borders was getting killed by the online presence of Amazon and Barnes & Noble which is also the largest physical book retailer, and it made no real effort to compete.

In Australia it tried to be the best in everything. It had DVDs and CDs but people quickly realised that there was a bigger selection at cheaper prices at JB HIFI. The same thing with their magazines. THere was always a newsagent that had a better selection. As for their book dept., it was run by people who didn't read, so, for instance, in the history section, you had a large number of books, but very few of the books that should have been there. It was the same with all of the sections that I frequented, and when you wanted to get a book in it would cost more than any other book store.

I love AbeBooks. I can get everything that I want cheaply. When I buy new I don't mind paying a little extra to actual bookstores that I like. Dymocks and Mary Martin are good shops with excellent selections, relatively cheap prices, and run by people who actually read and enjoy books.

daz said...

I don't think I've set foot in a bookshop since discovering book depository's free shipping.

Ross A Chapman said...

I remember when the Borders opened in Rundle Mall in Adelaide. I was in my final year at the University of Adelaide and it was like heaven.

Many a lecture was skipped to wander over the road and look through the shelves of a bookshop that seemed so much more. I could find CDs of my favourite jazz artists. I could find the history texts that I'd been looking for. I could find that elusive Pratchett or Rankin book you couldn't get anywhere else. It was amazing.

When I moved to Vic the Borders there, whilst good, were a lot harder for me to get to so I would venture to either Knox or Chadstone rarely. I also started to notice how the collections shrank.

By the time I moved to Sydney in '07 it seemed that Borders had simply become a bigger, slightly more expensive A&R. Sure, they could GET me the book I wanted. But I could do that to. With the internet. So at this point, what service is being provided.

All that being said, the decline of bookstores like Borders is saddening. I read an article, I think in the SMH, that noted something that very much struck a chord. The move from bookstores to online won't stop people getting the book that they want. It will stop them getting the book that they didn't know they wanted. Which is a considerable amount of my collection.

Nice post Grog.

(I finally re-activated my blogger account so I could comment on your blog posts. I figured since i read them I may as well participate.)

Caesar Wong said...

Personally, I think the US Borders collapse was just a good excuse for the Red Group, who also own the A&R franchise, to offload a low margin part of their business. Meanwhile the A&R stores continue their dodgy business practices like trying to shaft small publishers,

Their problem is that they came to the online party too little, too late. I was actually an avid user of Borders Online, particularly with the price beat guarantee. If they had just figured that out sooner, all this unpleasantness and gnashing of teeth would never have needed to happen.

B_Natural said...

People may be interested in this article from the SMH in February 2011 titled: 'Don't blame the internet for bookshops going under'

Michael Evans argues "FOR all the finger pointing at the impact of online shopping in the demise of the Borders and Angus & Robertson bookstores, a familiar story rings true in the latest private equity horror story: overexpanded, took on a pile of debt, went bust when cashflow dried up."

Full article at -

Alistair Baillieu-McEwan said...

The Borders bookstore in Adelaide was the scene of one of the best discussions on the works of Michel Foucault I've ever participated in. The person who served me with the copy of one of his books exclaimed with delight about this choice, which led to a lengthy discussion. When a queue formed at the counter, he arranged for someone else to take over the till and we continued our discussion.
This reminded me so much of the early Readings Bookstore in Carlton where wide and deep reading on the part of the staff seemed to be a prerequisite to employment.
Tomorrow I'm headed to a bookshop in Castlemaine in Victoria where I'm pretty sure I'll find nearly all the books listed in your blog -although I'm puzzled by your choice of Kenneally's work over the other one mentioned.
I'm glad Ross A. Chapman above has drawn attention to the fact that booklovers more often than not will purchase other books which they have discovered at the time they were in the shop. I always come away with more books than I planned.
Perhaps it's time to set up some community owned and run bookshops where profits can be ploughed back into books, rather than into shareholders' pockets. (Although in the current climate in Australia "community" anything is seen as a bad thing).

Anonymous said...

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is a great book. Got an audio version for a present. Loving it. Though it is long and might be a bit detailed for some not so interested in the minutiae of history, and I am a science geek. YMMV

He has two follow up books, on the hydrogen bomb, and the situation with nuclear weapons since that development, neither of which I have read/heard.

I grew up in the pre internet world and have a soft spot for casual browsing through bookstores, which activity I excelled at during my uni days in Sydney a few years back. Fond memories of many indulgent quiet hours spent in dusty second hand book stores on King St and Glebe Pt Rd.

However, I must disagree with this comment:

The move from bookstores to online won't stop people getting the book that they want. It will stop them getting the book that they didn't know they wanted.

My experience is almost the opposite. The internet, and especially the rise of the amateur but passionate and knowledgeable blogger, has seriously expanded my random reading connections and opportunities. Stuff I would never had heard about, or being able to find, I now know of and is usually within (relatively) easy reach.

Also, the internet age has made audiobooks a much more viable format, and that counts for something among those, like me, who cannot physically read as much as they once did.

Are there downsides to the decline in physical book stores? Sure. But they are substantially outweighed by the online opportunities offered to serious bibliophiles, (including the chance to engage in discussions like this with people you would never normally meet in a million years).

2353 said...


Smiggle is a great exercise in marketing - my daughter and nieces love them too.

Hopefully they'll grow out of it - soon!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for Booko. What a wonderful thing.

thefactis said...

Even though I own an iPad, nothing beats a physical copy and I'm part of the technological generation! It's a shame Borders is closing down, I would always go there and sit down and read I book. Most people treated it like a library because it was as big as one. The internet was always going to be the downfall of Borders and Angus & Robertson because sites such as Book Depository have great prices.

I also like the smiggle stationary though they are expensive. The design is basically the lure. Thanks for the booko site. Really helpful!

Grahame said...

I stopped going into Borders a couple of years ago. The Perth one was never terribly welcoming. I do like the idea of a book shop with coffee, but I won't buy from Gloria Jeans..

My favourite book store here is Planet Books. It's on Beaufort street, a cafe/restaurant strip, and it's open pretty late over the weekend. It's might seem bizarre but going out to the pub and stopping to browse in a book store on the way home is very enjoyable.

I'm hoping the excellent independent book stores will survive. Sorting out the parallel importation stuff might be a good idea to give them a hand.

emjar said...

Grog,Like you I have always been in love with book shops (NOT stores) starting with Mary Martin's in Adelaide in the 1970's.Back then I ordered books from a news letter from them which was sent to me by post into the wilds of rural SA.I was 16 years old and obsessed with reading.I still have those books.Then when I went to Adelaide I shopped at A&R and Dymocks in the Mall and checked out Michael Treloars's book shop on North Terrace and the best of all ....the Oxfam second hand bookshop in Hutt Street(trust me the best in the world!!!).The whole book buying /reading experience is so ingrained in my life that you can imagine my grief when the local regional A&R closed down.The only decent bookshop in town.It happened so fast that we had no time to grasp what was happening except to wonder at the bargains we were getting. Now its gone from our small shopping centre...just another empty retail space. We have no option now but to shop on line and thank goodness for Dymocks on line at least they're Australian (or so I'm led to believe) but I have also been seduced by the ease and cheapness of on lines such as Book Depository.The problem is that I am fearful that the whole book buying experience which has been such an integral part of my life is slowly but surely fading away so I completely understand how you feel especially as the memories of you and your daughter sharing the experience seem to be so powerful. for you.

ASL said...

I think B_Natural has pointed to a possible followup story, about the miserable role played by private equity takeovers. Another brand I liked - Colorado - is going the same way, again as the result of private equity deals.

It seems that there are some markets where the needs of the private equity firms are in direct opposition to the needs of the customers. In the end, both lose.

Anonymous said...

I was born in 1977 and we (my 2 sisters and I) grew up with no television. We had unlimited access and funds to any exchange bookshop we desired (in Cairns). We were able to buy as many or whatever books we desired, as long as we read them. We couldn't buy another until we had read all the ones we had previously bought. I am now an L&D Manager in Fed Govt for 10 years and never for one moment have missed television in my childhood. I believe this thinking of my parents brought great respect for the love of reading (my friends don't really read), my love of reading biographies/autobiographies (reading about the lives of fiction is so boring when we already have the exciting lives of people who have done the same thing in real live, right?). I also did little athletics, numerous musical instruments and various art which balanced me. Just want to say that my parents were not hippies but chose to remove television because they noticed it was a distraction to greater things which childhood was about. My love of books only grew stronger.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Booko link and in return I suggest which does the same but worldwide including Amazons uk and us and Book Depository. Just make sure you open the "Compare even more prices" option.

I had a similar experience with Borders; discovered them in the 90s in the States and loved the concept. Was thrilled when they arrived in my suburb, particularly enjoyed the history and photography section and got more and more frustrated as shelves of books were replaced with shelves of kitsch but now it is gone I do not have anything bigger than a tiny store within 15kms. Thankfully I have a Kobo, bought a bunch of books at 60 -80% off during my Borders' closing weeks and will continue to use the Book Depository. Still even with the internet options I will miss wandering around endless books. The Lifeline book sales will have to be my way of choosing a random unknown author now. At least it is a cheaper option as well.

Wiggins said...

The Book Depository is also officially faster & cheaper than the inter library loan at my local library (Eltham, for those who can be warned)